by Dr. Natalie Goldring
Simple logic suggests that ammunition should be treated in the same manner as all other items covered by the prospective Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Ammunition is not a separate case; it’s what makes these weapons deadly in the first place. Without ammunition, a weapon can be a club, but its killing capacity is markedly diminished.
Unfortunately, simple logic is not always in control at this conference. For example, the most recent version of the ATT conference president’s text, released on Tuesday, does not include ammunition in the main list of covered items. Instead, it is under a separate section, which reads that,
Each State Party shall establish and maintain a national control system to regulate the export of munitions to the extent necessary to ensure that national controls on the export of the conventional arms covered by Paragraph A1 (a)-(h) are not circumvented by the export of munitions for those conventional arms.
The current draft language is obscure and indirect. As delegates repeatedly said Tuesday afternoon, ammunition must be included if the ATT is to be robust.
The treaty would have the most comprehensive coverage if ammunition and munitions were returned to the main list of items covered by the treaty. Exporters and importers alike would be responsible for controlling the ammunition they transferred or received.
There are admittedly challenges associated with attempting to trace the flows of ammunition over its useful lifetime. But even attempting to do so would help encourage governments to develop increased capacity to track the weapons and associated materiel leaving or entering their countries.
A compromise measure would be to require suppliers to control and monitor the initial export of ammunition. This would help establish the principle that international transfers of ammunition are worthy of regulation. The transfers that governments choose to track and measure in the ATT should be those they consider most important and/or most dangerous. It simply does not make sense to exclude ammunition from that list.
Some governments claim that it is impossible to control ammunition. Yet major suppliers, such as the United States, include ammunition in their list of controlled items, which are in fact tracked on export from the United States.
Fully including ammunition would also decrease one limitation of the proposed ATT, which is that it is almost entirely forward looking. It aims to establish systems to help control future transfers, rather than to control the hundreds of millions of weapons already in circulation around the world. Controlling ammunition could help control the weapons that are already in circulation and are responsible for the estimated 750,000 deaths per year globally that result from armed violence.
Arguments for setting high standards are compelling. The prospective ATT is presumably intended to last for generations. As a result, it should not be written to apply only to today’s circumstances and capabilities. Instead, the treaty must also be aspirational. It should have some standards that are achievable in the near future, while also setting standards that will require longer periods of time and/or more resources for their implementation. Controlling ammunition exports is achievable now. Taking the more ambitious step of including ammunition in the core list of items covered by the treaty would show a commitment to continuing to develop the treaty over time, to ensure that it covers all types of international transfers of all types of weapons.
Natalie Goldring is a senior fellow with the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. She also represents the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy at the United Nations on conventional weapons and arms trade issues.